Thelma & Louise Oscar-winner and Nashville creator Callie Khouri says there’s a “strange thing” about female-centric projects where “somehow in the culture, they’re not as good. It’s like, this is for women so it’s not a real thing… I’ve never been at peace with that.” But, she told a NATPE audience in Miami today, “One of the things that’s happening” in television is that “this is a place where you can have a voice and tell a story.” What about features? “Forget it,” she said. Apart from indies, “There’s nothing to do there.”
Khouri’s currently got the 5th season of Nashville airing on CMT and her next story will also be for television. She’ll exec produce Deep City, a Miami-set, music-themed ensemble drama series which is currently in development with Studiocanal’s Tandem Productions. Khouri’s husband and veteran music producer T Bone Burnett is also exec producing.
The series is created by Juan Carlos Coto (From Dusk Till Dawn) and is described as a saga about a cross-section of performers, musicians and criminals — and the collision of lives at a crossroads in a city where people go to find themselves, reinvent themselves, or escape.
Khouri said after being approached about the project she and Burnett spent four days in Miami, really digging into the emerging scene. “We were all over this town and I just went, ‘Oh my God, you could never stop telling stories about this town.’” She added that Burnett calls it “the most profound of all border towns. People have risked their lives to get here. It’s such a crossroads with people coming here to make real whatever their version of the American dream is. After a day-and-a-half, I was like, ‘This is on, we’re doing this.’”
But, they couldn’t do it alone which is why Coto, a University of Miami graduate and former Miami Herald staffer, is integral to the project. Said Khouri, “One of the reasons I can do Nashville is because I’m from there and because of T Bone too, I got to live in the music world and have an insider’s knowledge of that town. I don’t have that in this town so we needed somebody who does. I know what I do well and I know that authenticity has been a big part of the success of Nashville and I would not want anything less for this.”
Speaking of the transition for Nashville, which was cancelled by ABC last May and swiftly picked up by CMT, Khouri said, “That was a roller coaster.” The series began airing on its new network in December and is its highest-rated program. “It was perfect timing,” Khouri said of the switch, “It’s a really good fit.” With Marshall Herskovitz as the new showrunner and with new writers, “It’s really fun. It’s a whole new way of looking at the show.”
Turning back to the subject of women in the entertainment business. Khouri pointed to folks like Shonda Rhimes, Tinay Fey and Amy Poehler. “There are a lot of women that have become very successful who keep a lot of balls in the air. If you’re a man doing that nobody thinks anything of it.”
“I think it is harder for women,” Khouri said. “I don’t know why. We live in a world that is not that high on women. If you look around, it’s undeniable. In America we probably have got it better than any other place. Thinking about it though is self-defeating and you can’t really pay attention to it so I just stay focused on the work and believe in it.”
While Khouri is known for projects which prominently feature women, she says it hasn’t always been a conscious decision to go in that direction. “I think about it because it’s in the culture. But when I’m by myself and thinking about a character, I’m not thinking, ‘OK, I need a woman.’ I didn’t decide to create two women at the center of Nashville. They were the characters that showed up when I started wanting to do a show about Nashville.”
She allowed that when she wrote 1991’s Thelma & Louise — which in 2016 was added to the National Film Registry — she thought women needed “a movie they could go see where they didn’t need someone to cover them on the way to the car… or any number of the experiences women have had.”
Today, for women in features, Khouri said, “Forget it. There’s nothing to do there.” Television, “is a world in which you have a lot more freedom in terms of telling stories with women at the center because women are the audience and with features films (studios aren’t) really going for us, in most cases they’re not even going for adults.”
However, there are “great female characters in indie films.” Pointing to recent hit Hidden Figures, she said its box office success is “a giant step.” But, “It’s one of those things where every success is an anomaly… It would be great if no one noticed that anymore. If one day we don’t make a big deal of it anymore, that will be a good day.”